Why is what we do at Virginia Supportive Housing important?

Posted on April 25, 2012

This blog was written by Stephanie M. Johnson, Housing Development Officer for VSH.

I have been asked on numerous occasions ‘Why is what we do at Virginia Supportive Housing important?’ There are many layers to my response but in summary ‘We are helping others by providing safe and affordable housing that incorporates environmentally responsible design features which improves communities and betters lives.’

The primary reason that anyone enters a career that is dedicated to ending homelessness is because they want to help others; I am no different. I have a great amount of respect for the homeless individuals that we serve. They are able to survive in extremely difficult circumstances that most of us cannot even imagine. Being able to provide a safe, comfortable, and supportive environment for these individuals is life changing. Not only do the residents have the opportunity to work with on-site support services and property management staff to stabilize their health and income but they also have the peace of mind of having a place to call home.

Providing a permanent home opens a world of opportunities for individuals that were formerly homeless. For example, I recently met a resident that is reuniting with his family that he hasn’t seen since the time he became homeless 12 years ago. He now has a place that he is proud to have his family visit and is working on rebuilding these relationships. Permanent supportive housing is a proven, permanent solution to homelessness and provides residents with the opportunity to enjoy the present and look forward to their future.

Not only are we providing a solution to homelessness but we are incorporating environmentally responsible design features into our apartment communities. Virginia Supportive Housing is designing buildings that reduce the impact on the environment by incorporating low-flow showerheads and toilets, Energy Star appliances and windows, mini-split HVAC system with programmable thermostats in each unit, and permeable pavers. The buildings have also started incorporating a solar thermal hot water system and a solar PV array to off-set the buildings electrical load. Housing Development staff also work with communities to get input on the design and siting of developments to ensure that the buildings are designed to blend in with the community and be located near public transportation, shopping, etc. to allow for greater independence. We constantly strive to improve the energy efficiency of our buildings and have been able to significantly reduce our impact on the environment while improving the quality of life for the residents.

At Virginia Supportive Housing I get to be a part of something much bigger than myself. I get to meet some really amazing residents that inspire me with their resilience. I also have the opportunity to work with our partners in the community that are equally passionate about ending homelessness. Though the employees at Virginia Supportive Housing all have different backgrounds and provide different services within the agency, we all have one thing in common and that is the desire to end homelessness. Virginia Supportive Housing works to improve communities and the lives of our residents but in the end we all benefit from our work because a career is more rewarding when you are truly inspired by the mission that you are serving.

Invisible Everywhere

Posted on July 13, 2010

I have asked Alison Jones-Nassar, VSH’s volunteer program coordinator, to write this week’s blog. Thanks, Alice

Did you know…that the problem of homelessness manifests itself differently in different countries, but that responses to it reflect universal themes?

According to Wikipedia, there are about 100 million homeless people worldwide. About 3,000,000 people are estimated to be homeless in the European Union, while in Canada that figure is about 150,000. In Australia the official figure is 105,000 and in Japan, between 20,000 – 100,000 people are identified as homeless. In so-called Third World countries, homelessness is rapidly rising due to a variety of factors including poverty, poor urban housing conditions, migration trends, overpopulation, food scarcity, and conflict. Based on available data, one thing seems to be true: homelessness looks very different from one country, region, and continent to the next.

Last week, I had the opportunity to explore this idea when I was asked to participate in a training session for a group of VCU students who are doing a summer social media project in partnership with several Richmond area non-profits. The group consists primarily of Iraqi exchange students (including Kurds), but there are also students from South America and Central Europe.

Among other things, these students are tasked with teaching basic computer and social media skills in a volunteer capacity to residents of Carver district, including some of our tenants from New Clay House. As volunteer program coordinator for Virginia Supportive Housing, it’s my job to prepare these students for interacting one-on-one with our clients, and my training was designed to help these volunteers understand how their knowledge, perceptions, awareness, and sensitivity toward the issue of homelessness could impact their experiences.

Despite the early hour (training began at 8:30 a.m.) the students quickly developed an intense interest in the subject and a lively discussion followed. Coincidentally, one student had already had an encounter with homelessness. In a blog describing her experiences in the US, she wrote about “something negative [that] happened to us that really scared us. We saw a drunk, homeless man, who asked us for money. When we ignored him, he got mad and tried to hurt us. It made us all wonder about the safety in the United States.”

Using this observation to stimulate conversation, I asked them: what is the situation like in your country? What has your exposure been to homeless people there? Why do you think people become homeless there? Why do you think they become homeless here? Do you feel toward the homeless in your country what you felt toward this man?

These questions go way beyond objective understanding to penetrate deeply ingrained value systems regarding personal fault and social obligation, political justice and divine retribution. I won’t pretend to think that I changed anyone’s perspective on the issue, though I do believe it was a very thought-provoking hour and a half for everyone in the room. One thing seems to be universal: people experiencing homelessness are invisible everywhere. People all over the world avert their gazes from the problem and try to pretend it simply doesn’t exist. They shake their heads and pass judgment and are confident it will never happen to them. We can develop our plans and strategies and goals and timelines, but there is still a lot of work to be done where it counts – in the human heart.

Observations and Comments about Homeward’s Homeless Simulation: Look at the Shoes Under my Bed

Posted on May 4, 2010

Two weeks ago during Affordable Housing Awareness Week, Homeward held a Homeless Simulation where people could experience what it was like to be homeless and get the services that are needed. Participants in the simulation were given real life situations and were asked to assume the role of a homeless person or family. One situation also included someone who was on the brink of homelessness and needed prevention services.

Homeward did a great job planning and carrying out the event. I attended the de-briefing at St. Paul’s Church and the responses of the participants indicated that the simulation was an enlightening experience. The participants really got a sense of what people who are homeless go through just getting basic services like food and health care. Participants also got a taste of what it’s like trying to get from downtown to southside without a car.   (Read one person’s account of his experience during the Homeless Simulation, including the trials and tribulations of trying to find the right bus.)  Participants were overwhelmed with the paperwork that was required in order to receive services at a government agency. Why is that not surprising?

The participants gave all of the service providers a gold star for their responsiveness to people in need and the respect that everyone received as they waited for services or got help. When asked during the de-briefing if there were other services that were needed, no one could think of any.

I have to say that at that point, my heart sank. No one mentioned the critical need for permanent housing. After considering the characteristics of the simulation and its participants, I decided to give everyone at the de-briefing the benefit of the doubt. I believe participants were simply overwhelmed with obtaining the very basic needs for survival. People experiencing homelessness have to do so much just to get the basics: food, clothes, a bed for the night and if they’re sick, health care.

A permanent place to stay may not have been in the forefront of the simulation participants’ minds while they were standing in line to get food, bus passes etc. They were most likely thinking about the moment; bemused by the challenges they faced just to eat or travel a few miles.

As evidenced by the simulation, we as a community do a great job with the basics. Now, what more can we do? More importantly, how can we surpass expensive emergency services and solve the root of the problem?

When I finally had a turn to speak I talked about the other solution, besides prevention, to homelessness … permanent housing.  Participants around the table nodded their heads and understood that this was the end game. Emergency housing and services are needed, but perhaps the most basic need of people experiencing homelessness is a home — a permanent place to live.

One participant asked me what they could do to help, which was a wonderful question.  Here are some things that we (VSH) said:

These are just a few things that we can do so that we can begin to focus our efforts on the solutions to homelessness and transform our system. While VSH fully supports the Homeless Simulation, maybe we need a segment of the day to focus more on the permanent solutions to the problem.  It could be titled “Walk in Their Shoes and Then See Those Shoes Under Their Beds”.

We Can’t Afford To Be Ignorant About Affordable Housing Issues

Posted on April 20, 2010

I have asked Alison Jones-Nassar, VSH’s Volunteer Program Coordinator, to write this week’s blog. Thanks, Alice

Affordable Housing Awareness Week was launched on Monday morning with a symposium at the Jepson Alumni Center focused on issues surrounding the topic of affordable housing. The first speaker looked around the room, filled primarily by housing awareness advocates, and asked, “Why should we learn about housing affordability?” And indeed, the events scheduled throughout this week are designed to answer that very question. Ultimately, I think the answer to that question depends on another question. Does everyone deserve a safe and stable place to live?

Affordable housing is not an abstract issue for me. It is not something that I only think about during business hours. My family lives in an affordable rental community with income qualifications in Chesterfield. Living in this community has made it possible for my children to attend quality public schools and receive an excellent education.

We have lived in the same building with many of the same neighbors for six years, and so I can feel secure knowing someone is watching out for my kids when they let themselves in after school. The grounds are well-kept and the buildings are well-maintained. And we have easy access to libraries, fitness centers, and many other services and activities that most people would consider necessary for a decent quality of life. More communities like this are desperately needed.

Just last week I drove through a neighborhood across town where clusters of grown men stood together on street corners and small children played among spilled garbage cans and strewn glass. Yards were abandoned, windows were broken, and cracked gates hung off hinges. I was astonished to see entire houses collapsing from years of structural neglect. For too many people, especially single parent families, this is what “affordable housing” really means: unsafe drug-infested neighborhoods, poor schools, and a lack of even basic services.

Does everyone deserve a safe and stable place to live? For me the answer is a resounding yes. I believe that all mothers, not just me, want safe neighborhoods and good schools and places to play for their children. Everyone, not just people in award-winning Chesterfield, wants decent transportation systems and convenient grocery stores with fresh produce and jobs that pay the rent.

So … Why should we learn about housing affordability? Because when you get right down to it, the issues that surround the subject of affordable housing are issues that lie at the very heart of the concepts of fairness and equality on which this country was supposedly founded and to which we all supposedly subscribe.

Affordable Housing Awareness Week was designed to help ordinary people not only understand more about housing affordability, but to take action. This week, fifteen area non-profits including Virginia Supportive Housing are welcoming community volunteers who would like to build, paint, rake, weed, plant, clean and make a visible difference in the community we all call home. It’s a great opportunity to volunteer and it’s also a great opportunity to learn. Because we can’t afford to be ignorant about affordable housing issues any more.



The Impact of Anita

Posted on July 14, 2009

My dear Mother, Anita, passed away two months ago. I was with her and some of my siblings in Florida when it happened. Was it difficult? Yes, but it was also a remarkable experience and life-changing.

Our ordeal started that Wednesday night seeing Mom on a ventilator at St. Anthony’s Hospital. We finally got her off the ventilator on Saturday. She was breathing on her own, but her heart had been damaged and after two and half years in a nursing home, she was tired and ready to go and see her husband and son in heaven.

But, keeping her on the ventilator had given us a reprieve – we all had a chance to say goodbye and tell her we loved her. She told us she loved us too and tried to smile. My sister and I cancelled our flights home because we thought it would be any day for her death.

I had now been in Florida for eight days. I had said goodbye to Mom and reminisced with my family. We had lots of family dinners and conversations; laughed and cried, although I still had not cried very much. We’re a pretty quirky family (isn’t every big family?) and we can get on each others’ nerves. But, for some reason, we were very good to each other, understanding it was really hard on some of us more than others.

On Thursday morning, the hospice nurses visited and we asked how Mom was doing? Well, she’s still hanging in there. They told us it could be today or days. Frankly, we were not happy. My brother and one of my sisters went back to work. A couple of my sisters and I had our nails done and rented a movie—the Secret life of Bees, which I suggested.

That movie was the turning point for me. It was about strong women and the Virgin Mary. Didn’t I remember that I had given the book to Mom because it screamed Anita? She was crazy about the Blessed Virgin Mary.

I finally let go. I could not stop crying. I cried even more when my sister came over and gave me the prayer of St. Theresa that her teacher friend had given her. One of the lines was especially poignant for me—“you are where you are supposed to be”. So, I cried and was sad and was in it for the long haul. I didn’t care how long it took but I was going to be here keeping vigil with Mom.

At 9:30 that night, we were sitting around the bed. Mom was breathing as if she was sleeping. I felt drawn to her and just laid my head on her shoulders and rested with her. She stopped breathing while I was holding her and passed to the spirit world to see Dad and my brother, Paul. In that moment, she had given me the most remarkable gift of my life. She taught me so many lessons in dying. She taught me and all seven of my siblings about our priorities and the importance of family. She taught me to stop trying to control every situation. I needed to let go, get in the moment, have faith and take in her love, which I finally did.

So, you might be wondering what this has to do with my job or Virginia Supportive Housing. While we are struggling in this economic crisis, I am so mindful about what really is important. Non-profits need to be good to each other and collaborate. As my family stuck together and made it through that difficult time, we can make it if we work together.

Equally important, if not more so, is our mission and the people we serve. If I focus my efforts on why we are doing what we do, everything will work out alright. I cannot control the economy or the fact that funding is tight, but I can work with a passion and love that Anita taught me. I can see the effects of our housing and services on our most vulnerable populations and know that we are doing good.

So, let’s work together and remember why we’re here in the first place.<-->

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